University of Rochester

‘Everybody’s President’

Through scholarly, thoughtful, and focused engagement, outgoing President Thomas H. Jackson leaves a remarkable legacy as a leader. By Paul Burgett ’68E, ’76E (PhD)
Thomas H. Jackson

Years ago, while having lunch together and musing about our careers, Tom Jackson looked at me and said, “You know, I still don’t know what I’m going to be when I grow up.” We laughed, and I agreed that I didn’t either.

That seemingly blithe—and only slightly tongue-in-cheek—observation became a useful idea in our many meetings together with students over the years, with whom we shared it as they tried to get their minds around their “career issues.” The students probably thought we were acting a little goofy. Nonetheless, they humored us and even seemed comforted by the idea that a person with Tom’s credentials would express any lack of certainty about his future career direction.

During lunch together on the day in March 2004 when he announced his decision to step down as president, Tom said jokingly, “I’m in big trouble now, because I still don’t know what I’m going to be when I grow up.” Again, we laughed.

Leading Man: Q&A with President Jackson

That anecdote, which bookends an 11-year presidential career, is more telling than it might seem at first. By any lights, Tom has had a distinguished career as a legal scholar, professor, law school dean, provost, and the University’s ninth president. But as I have watched him lead Rochester for more than a decade, it has become evident to me that Tom has never been one to confuse credentials with achievement or position with success.

A scholar in the truest sense of the word, he looks forward to the opportunity to engage his intellect in a subject that fascinates him. And we have been fortunate that for the past 11 years that subject has been Rochester.

An early, important glimpse of his commitment came at the end of the 1993 presidential search. Trustee and current Board Chairman Robert Witmer ’59 told me that at the time of Tom’s appointment he worried that Tom’s appeal in the presidential marketplace would quickly grow, based on his track record, and Rochester might lose him prematurely. Tom told Witmer that he had no intention of ever being president of another institution. That response, in Witmer’s words, “sold me.”

Tom is committed to the highest principles of teaching and learning, and his career path has logically, though not necessarily predictably, evolved from that. He has an exquisitely analytical and nimble intellect that negotiates complex and nuanced problems at almost an atomic level, with sparkling precision and always with a goal of gaining sufficient understanding that leads to the right answers.

Ironically, he tells a story that as a college undergraduate, he initially thought of majoring in math; that is, until he encountered the mathematical world of multiple dimensions, at which point American studies (in three dimensions) seemed much more attractive and manageable.

Though no doubt so, I have watched Tom successfully manage administrative problems that likely would make even those who do multidimensional mathematics tremble. A serious photographer, perhaps his photographer’s eye has strengthened his ability to see a subject’s myriad details while holding onto the big picture, strive for balance and perspective, and produce elegant outcomes that work.

With a strategic sense of order, Tom wisely resisted the tendency to respond willy-nilly to every internal and external demand made on any university president, choosing to focus first on the major, inter-generational issues of the time. But he also addressed routine and parochial matters that arise in the daily life of the University. He treated them all with scholarly attention.

The outcomes of his efforts might not have pleased everyone at the time, but the results, in particular the success both of the College’s Renaissance Plan and the Medical Center’s strategic plan, demonstrate that Tom clearly understood what Rochester needed to accomplish to be well-positioned for the future.

A modest and contemplative man, Tom has a deft and gentle touch. In the complex University environment with its diverse constituencies, I have known him to be reliable, principled, and kind to all. In his hands, the University has become a significantly better place that thrives in spirit and outlook precisely because of his scholarly, thoughtful, and focused leadership. Tom has been a brilliant and effective president and, importantly, he has been Everybody’s President. In all, a remarkable legacy.

Tom and Bonnie Jackson will continue to live amongst us after he steps down at the end of June. As Distinguished University Professor, he will continue to contribute to the University in new ways. Such is our good fortune, for from that eminent perch, no doubt Tom will continue to enlighten and humor students who struggle with ages-old questions about what they’re going to be when they grow up.

That’s good news indeed.

Paul Burgett ’68E, ’76E (PhD) is vice president and general secretary and senior advisor to the president.